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Recently a Manitoba based writer, Joanne Seiff, posted an op-ed on CBC (Time to Assess the True Cost of Digital Piracy) commenting on how digital piracy is undermining the delicate economic equation that allows both aspiring and established writers to continue to create new content for the benefit of the consuming public. Joanne has published two books, Fiber Gathering and Knit Green, available on Amazon, on the subject of knitting and textiles. While writing is clearly a labour of love for her and many others, there is also the potential to earn a decent living. For example, at one point the book Knitlandia was number 5 on the New York Times bestseller list. While it can sometimes be financially rewarding, there is also a huge personal and economic cost to writing, especially funding the necessary research (which in her case involved extensive travel), as she outlines in her essay.
Like some fortunate writers, Joanne is actually good enough to work on the basis of an advance from her publisher, but then the books have to sell to cover the advance. Endemic digital piracy bleeds off a lot of potential revenue. Her op-ed put the spotlight on this issue from a very personal perspective. As she noted, “… the web is like the wild west. Once something I’ve written goes live, it can end up legally or illegally mirrored or republished on dozens of sites, but I’m only paid once. It’s likely you could download one of my books for free today…I’ve tried to get the pirated copies removed from the web, but it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Folks just keep passing along my work illegally for free.”
Joanne’s essay was prodded by a specific story behind the scenes; that knitting and crocheting are actually a pretty big industry—but plagued by copyright issues. It is estimated that over one in three women in North America knits or crochets, but there are ongoing challenges with copyright regarding knitwear designs. Joanne notes that for many it seems like “no big deal” to make and give away free copies of someone’s pattern, or to make a photocopy (or send a PDF) to a friend. Yet this issue affects hundreds, if not thousands, of designers a year. She comments that, in her experience, copyright violation in knitting and crocheting is frequently disparaged as unimportant because it is a predominantly (but not exclusively) female industry. It is seen by some as a “cottage industry” with women earning “pin money” and therefore not taken seriously. Nonetheless, a quick web-search brings up plenty of discussion on the legalities of the issue. On knitting sites such as Ravelry, patterns are offered for sale at between $3 and $10 a piece, although most designers cannot make a living solely off of pattern sales, but also teach, write, or have other day jobs. Yet there are designers who make a full time living off pattern design, often selling on multiple platforms. Ravelry has an active sales category for those who earn more than $1500 a month–just in pattern downloads. It’s a real small business, although one threatened by rampant, if mostly unthinking, copyright infringement.
It is clear that copyright and knitting are intertwined, both with respect to unauthorized copying of patterns and, in the case of Joanne, the content of her books. What is disturbing is the reaction to her essay in the comment section of the op-ed. Unfortunately these days the anonymity of the web seems to bring out the worst in some people who apparently have nothing better to do than post ignorant and even spiteful comments in response to a story. (Purely coincidentally, I am sure, the CBC recently announced an end to its policy of allowing anonymous comments.) Some of the commenters of course made points worth registering, but others ranged from rudely criticizing the writing style and structure of the essay, to blaming the publishing industry, Hollywood studios or the music industry, to accusing the writer of spreading “pro-TPP propaganda”. The negativity of the comments is unacceptable. As Joanne notes on her blog Yarn Spinner, you have to have a thick skin when putting forward a public position, and need to tell yourself that the visceral and insulting reaction by commentators (is the criticism worse against women than men?) probably masks a hidden guilt that those commenting regularly help themselves to the creative works of others without any thought of payment. As she says, “why not create an opinion piece of your own instead of posting derogatory comments on the carefully expressed views of others? Why not put your own writing out there for publication and criticism?”
It seems hard to have a rational discussion on a subject so fraught with judgments (and guilt) as copyright infringement, or piracy, or whatever term you choose to use. This applies whether we are talking about knitting patterns, books, software, photographs, music or film. Discussion quickly becomes defensive, and sometimes nasty, as a self-justifying technique. Blaming “Hollywood” is a favourite tactic because the studios are often seen as representing “big business”. It’s as if it is all right to steal from ATM machines because the banks are big and wealthy. Another line of justification is to point to the digital age as the reason why piracy is acceptable and inevitable. Somehow, because it is technically easier to infringe, that makes it okay.
Copyright has faced many technical changes over the years, from the photocopier to cassettes to digital scanning. There is no reason why “author’s rights” (as copyright is known in French) should not be as valid today as before the digital age; in fact because copying and distribution is so ubiquitous and cheap, there is even more reason to protect and respect the creativity of writers, musicians, scriptwriters, artists, and yes, knitting pattern creators, as well as all the others who make up the creative industries protected by copyright laws.
As Joanne Seiff discovered, outing the perpetrators can be unpleasant. The cost of paying for content is not exorbitant; it is the lifeblood of creativity even if the returns are low for many creators. Yet perfectly responsible people who conduct themselves ethically in other aspects of their lives seem to have few qualms about indulging in and justifying behaviour that they clearly know is not right and not morally acceptable.
© Hugh Stephens 2016, All Rights Reserved.